Written and directed by Richard Curtis
Charm gets you only so far, so it’s lucky that Richard Curtis has three exceedingly likable actors in his new film, About Time. This is very much a Richard Curtis affair, fitting comfortably alongside Notting Hill, Love Actually, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, for good or ill. There are bold, outsized declarations of love; there is a pop-song-laden soundtrack; there are gawky yet winning lead characters; and on, and on, and on. Even with the science-fiction concept at the story’s core, About Time is, at best, a very cute movie. For most of its running time, being very cute is good enough.
Domnhall Gleeson is Tim, said gawky lead who finds out from his father (Bill Nighy) that, at age 21, all the men in his family are gifted with the ability to travel in time, only to previous points in their own lives. Because he’s a creation of Richard Curtis, Tim first uses this gift to find himself a girlfriend. To his great fortune, Tim soon has a Meet Cute with the effervescent and delightful Mary (Rachel McAdams). First, they share a double date in an in-the-dark restaurant. But then, Tim has to travel in time to help out his roommate, so their Meet Cute is postponed and shifted. So it goes for Tim, always being given a new reason to go back a few days, or months, or even years, unable to allow life to unfold without tampering in it somehow.
As a 2-hour reminder that Bill Nighy and Rachel McAdams are endlessly pleasant to watch on the big screen, About Time is just about perfect. And Gleeson can be added to the list; after supporting roles in films like True Grit and Anna Karenina, About Time proves that he can handle a leading-man role, even in a slight romantic comedy such as this. It seemed like Hugh Grant, in Love Actually and Notting Hill, was playing at being shyly awkward, as opposed to embodying such traits. Tim may be slightly overwritten, to heighten how geeky he can be around women, but Gleeson is never forced in his stuttering speech or gait. McAdams is as bubbly and goofy here as she’s ever been; not only do she and Gleeson have immense chemistry with each other, but in a few scenes, she calls to mind Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, less a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and more a fully formed human.
The operative word in that last sentence, though, is “in a few scenes.” About Time just crosses the two-hour mark, yet feels strangely underdeveloped, even within that trio of leads. The performances do far more work than Curtis’ script does. Considering his other work, it’s not terribly surprising that there’s not much time spent on creating the logic of how anyone in this world can travel back in time. That said, there do need to be some rules when time travel is included in any piece of fiction, even if the butterfly effect is laughed off, as it is here. But About Time establishes only a handful of rules, and then negates them for no good reason. Early on, Tim’s dad clearly states that traveling forward in time is a no-go, but later, Tim does just that. It might not be a huge stretch to presume that traveling in the future is OK, as long as it’s from one point in the past to a future point in said past. This is, of course, roughly where some people might start getting headaches trying to comprehend what’s going on, but if Curtis wants time travel in his movie, he needs to stick to whatever rules he creates, and keep them consistent.
What’s more vexing is that when Tim breaks this rule—never commented on within the movie itself—it’s for a purely manufactured reason. Really, all of About Time is completely artificial, elevated solely by the leads. And the first half of the film is surprisingly conflict-free. Unlike Curtis’ other swooning upper-middle-class romances, About Time does not climax with a crazy, daring gesture of love that finally convinces McAdams to fall for Gleeson. The love story never feels anything less than fated, so when actual plot contrivances kick in during the final hour, it’s a symptom of Curtis trying too hard, too late, to fill in the background. We’re told in Tim’s opening narration that his sister is the best person in the world, and while this makes him more endearing for being such a devoted older brother, the amount of time he spends with her in the film is almost nil. Instead of explaining their relationship, it’d have been nicer to see it.
About Time would not have been out of place as its own section of Curtis’ Love Actually. There isn’t much more to the story outside of the lead’s relationship with the love of his life, and the one he has with his father. Richard Curtis could’ve set this movie at Christmas, shortened it to about 15 minutes, maybe thrown in an extension of Rowan Atkinson’s cameo, and this would’ve been perfect next to stories led by Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Hugh Grant, and more. As a feature, About Time is slight and cute and sweet, but falls apart if you spend any time thinking about it once you leave the theater.
— Josh Spiegel